AFTER sneezing a thousand times, I went to the chemist for a cure. The only one open nearby was one of those large, bargain-basement pharmacies.
“How’s your day been?” I asked the checkout dude.
“Just peachy,” he replied. “It’s been a rollicking, rambunctious day.”
The store was very quiet. My guy was somewhere between 16 and 20, with dark, wavy hair swept back from his forehead. His lively word choice took me by surprise and I laughed, but then felt chastened, unsure how much of his displeasure was directed at my question. I like to make that kind of small talk, but I suppose it’s bitter for someone working a menial job on a Sunday afternoon.
He stepped back from the terminal and shook his head. “I’ve had it. I can’t do this anymore, you know.” His blue eyes were wide, and his voice flat. “I just can’t.”
Then he stepped forward and leant in over the counter. His voice took on a peculiar energy. “There’s got to be a better way to make money. You know those people who rob banks and never get caught? That’s the smart play.”
I looked around. No one was waiting to be served. “I’m not sure if those people exist,” I said. “Don’t they get caught?”
“You know when internet banking began in like 2001 or 2002?” he said, gathering momentum. “Hackers were just breaking in, and shovelling it out. It’s just numbers on a screen. No one got busted – they got rich. And the banks added the zeroes again, just making up the money. They can just make it up. That’s why we have inflation.
“But what I’m saying is, what if all the hours I’d spent here, all those hours in this place, instead I was learning how to be a hacker? Wouldn’t I be better off?” He glanced left and right at the lifeless store, and its garish signs promoting vitamins. “It’s too hard to make money the honest way.”
I thought about quoting the old aphorism devised by a freelance writer in ancient times (I think it was Plato): the greatest wealth is to live content with little. It’s been particularly useful for me, and it must become useful for many people if we’re to avoid and withstand the harder times ahead. These things crossed my mind. Then I thought about checkout dude’s measly hourly wage, and I thought better of it. “Well I guess it depends on whether you get caught,” I said instead.
“What if I could guarantee, like 99 per cent sure, you won’t get caught? What then? I could be millionaire. I could be out of this place.”
He was animated now, slightly breathless, and – happily – I was certain that some part of him had already left.